Dignity is not charity. Unlike charity, if we refuse to treat others with dignity it is us who are undignified. Dignity is not a matter of money. It cannot be quantified. In a time in which resplendent tales of individual success, measured in wealth and paperwork colour common sense ideals of betterment, the concept of dignity is perhaps important to consider.
Farrah Miranda’s artistic work centres the human dignity of migrant workers. Miranda’s installations, Produce Party and Speaking Fruit pose lingering questions regarding the possibility of dignity in the context of global capitalism.
"It's worse than slavery — they dispose of them”1 said Marcia Barrett, the cousin of Sheldon McKenzie who died after suffering head injuries while labouring as a farmworker in Canada. McKenzie, like many other migrant workers was stripped of access to labour rights, health care and human dignity and was deported to Jamaica where he died.
It seems inappropriate to describe a coffin as beautiful. And yet, Miranda’s artistic installation Produce Party, which includes a coffin arranged not for death but for dinner is a beautifully inspired assemblage that pays tribute to migrant farmworkers. Miranda’s strategically staged coffin questions the complicity of spectators who are bound to consumptive violence. The installation is a wooden coffin used as a dinner table, with a chandelier overheard that is made of produce and the dangling shoes of migrant farm workers, eerie remnants of labour and loss.
The Seasonal Agricultural Program brings migrant workers to Turtle Island to labour as temporary farmworkers. Workers have no right to retain residence or any access to basic resources such as healthcare.
Approximately 30,000 migrants come to Turtle Island annually as part of the program. Most workers come from Mexico and the Caribbean. Researchers state that between 2001 and 2011, 787 farm workers were deported for medical reasons. Chris Ramsaroop, a migrant justice advocate states: "To be blunt, I consider this an apartheid system. Migrant workers live and work under a different set of legal rights and obligation than we do.”2
By centring ubiquitous objects of consumption such as produce, Miranda’s art leaves one to question the indignities of the everyday that we live with and silently imbibe. Seemingly innocent fruit evokes images of gardens of Eden full of rotten apples, poisoned by global commodity chains of production that profit from displacement and death.
With Produce Party Miranda is a party crasher of sorts, aesthetically interrupting scenes of supposed civility with the brutal beauties of political truth. The dining coffin has been prepared for a feast, with plates, forks and knives, mimicking appendages of Western rituals of commune, haunted by dark empty hands. The table also contains placemats that have information regarding the ruthless exploitation of migrant workers, and messages from the workers themselves.
The artist’s inventiveness echoes the work of Marcel Duchamps whose found object art radically changed how one views the artist and their craft. Duchamps argued, “An ordinary object [could be] elevated to the dignity of a work of art by the mere choice of an artist.”3 Duchamp’s words resonate in powerful ways with Miranda’s craft. Produce Party elevates the coffin to a place of reverence as an artwork that offers some semblance of dignity to the lives and deaths of migrant workers.
Produce Party is visually arresting and poignant. Aesthetics of fruitful opulence become palatable politics. Miranda’s chandelier of produce and work boots soils cultures of supposed meritocracy. Conceptual artists such as Duchamps promoted “art of the mind” that has intellectual value beyond pure visual pleasure.4 In the spirit and tradition of intellectually provocative art, Miranda’s installation offers aesthetically arresting food for thought. Dinner is spoiled is striking ways by Miranda’s refusal to play house, instead inviting us to funerals. There is something shrewdly clever about the work, which restages the casual ways that rituals of consumptive pretension are stained with the blood of Black and Brown people.
Speaking Fruit also echoes history, as Miranda tactically occupies public space in a white settler country structured by the denial of racism. The installation is a moving fruit stand that alludes to provincial images of suburban ice cream trucks and organic farmers markets. By wearing a VR headset available in the fruit-stand, visitors can take a six minute trip to a vineyard in the Niagra region. There they witness a dance of six grape growers from Mexico, now exiled in Turtle Island. The piece, created through a series of dance workshops with choreographer Heryka Miranda, captures the workers affective and embodied relationship to the land and to each other. This work, along with The Produce Party is a culmination of the artist’s relational artistic practice, which involves working closely with farmworkers and migrant justice activists.
The prose of music and dance gives visibility to the winsome parts of people who are invisible to the mainstream. Sheldon McKenzie’s name appears in the Canadian press, like the names of many Black men, only after death. Miranda uses living testimonials to centre the creative vitality of those who are exploited beyond all humanity.
“Multiculturalism” is as Slavoj Žižek argues, a form of multinational capitalism. The jouissance of the other is deferred through the consumption of palatable otherness.5 Consumers gorge themselves on branded “diversity,” keeping the pain of immigrant lives at a sanitized distance, beyond implication and empathy. “Spicy food festivals” provide a weekend pastime where otherness is as bell hooks suggests, used to rejuvenate dull white lives.6 The migrant worker who picks “homegrown” Canadiana produce is not an exotic other spicing up the banalities of whiteness. The body of the exploited worker is a ghostly presence that haunts the very idea of “home” itself.
Farrah Marie Miranda does not serve up empty platitudes on silver platters. Rather, her confrontational installations provide necessary sustenance to on going migrant justice movements, creatively nourishing human dignity.
- Rosa Marchitelli, “Migrant worker program called 'worse than slavery' after injured participants sent home without treatment.” CBC News. 16 May 2016. Web. Accessed. 9 Dec. 2017
- MomaLearning. “Marcel Duchamps and the Art of the Readymade.” Moma.org. Web. Accessed: 9 Dec. 2017
- Žižek, Slavoj. “Multicultural or the Cultural Logic of Multinational Capital.” New Left Review I/225, September-October 1997. 28-50.
- bell hooks, “Eating the other: Desire and resistance.” In Black Looks: Race and Representation, pp. 21–39. Boston: South End Press, 1992.
Tara Atluri has a PhD in Sociology. She has written two books. The most recent, Uncommitted Crimes: The Defiance of the Artistic Imagi/nation discusses subaltern artists in and from Turtle Island (Canada) whose inspiring artwork serves as political critique.